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F is for Fifty

by Steppenwolf Literary Manager Aaron Carter

When I was in the sixth grade, my mother’s boyfriend paid me fifty dollars to fail a class assignment. This might seem to be a digression from expatriate Americans living in Belleville. But if you take a winding trip with me through a childhood memory, we will land in Paris. I don’t think you could call me an overachiever: the term implies a bright ambition that largely masks some minor insecurity. I was, instead, consumed by a fear of failure. I had hive-inducing anxiety about tests and homework. I would burst into tears at the slightest criticism. I made good grades, but I don’t remember any pleasure, any pride in it. That didn’t come until high school. Back then I only did well because the alternative filled me with terror. My parents had just gotten divorced. Though I didn’t know it then, this year was the eye of the storm. Waking up in the middle of the night to yelling and the sound of everything breakable being hurled into the bathtub had passed. The shouting matches in the parking lots, the visits from child services were yet to come. There in the quiet middle, I was just trying to find normal. The one tactic I had discovered was to pretend that none of this was happening. The assignment was fairly typical sixth grade work. I was to write my family history. It was one of those multi-class units spread over weeks. I remember that we got special writing time, and would sit in our own little spot on the gym floor, the 15 or so of us spread out across the basketball court. Except me. I refused to write. When pressed, I could give no explanation. I simply didn’t want to. There was only the white noise of that “no” running headlong into my inability to abide failure. Irresistible force and immovable object. No solution seemed possible. The only reaction was panic and angst. I couldn’t fail. But I couldn’t do the assignment. I couldn’t fail. But I couldn’t write. And it was during one of these wailing, whipsaw sessions that my mother’s boyfriend offered me fifty dollars to take the F. For whatever reason, that tipped the scales. It wasn’t incentive, exactly. I don’t remember being excited about fifty bucks. But it changed the equation enough for me to take action. And so for the next several weeks at school, on our special writing Fridays, I did not cry. Instead, I sat on the gym floor and stared at my blank notebook. As an adult, I can’t figure out exactly what the boyfriend was up to. I recall him saying that he wanted me to realize that an F wasn’t the end of the world. That I could fail and survive. It is true this was a lesson I desperately needed. My performance anxiety around schoolwork was definitely unhealthy. And maybe he saw the roots of the kind of behavior that led bright anxious young people to burn out in college. You know: the kind that turn to amphetamines to increase their focus or attempt suicide because they can’t handle the pressure. A dark vision of an eleven-year-old’s future to be sure, but I’m trying to give the man the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he was trying to save me. It is confusing, though, that he didn’t try save me from the dangers of denial. I have to assume my inarticulate “no, I will not write” was a result of my inability to face what had happened to my home. Whatever emotional defenses I had built to withstand the upheaval of divorce was threatened by the instruction to write my family history. If I did the assignment, I’d have to feel that raw wound again. As far as I was concerned, once was enough. You could argue that the better course of action would have been to use this assignment to help me articulate and process the roiling emotion inside of me. Why would the boyfriend choose to focus on my fear of failure and enable my denial rather than help me face the most traumatic event I had experienced? Perhaps his odd gesture of love was simultaneously an act of self-protection. No one would blame the boyfriend for the divorce. Well, my dad would. No objective party would blame him. But his role in providing my mother the courage for her necessary exit from the marriage might have stirred a sense of responsibility he preferred to ignore. To acknowledge my distress would bring him closer to facing his role in the radical reconstruction of my family. And it was at least partially true that intervention was needed to curb my grade anxieties. Is it possible that a combination of half-truth and denial of responsibility produced this strange parenting strategy? In the matrix of relationships in Belleville— that crisscross of marriage & friendship, housemates & landlords—denial is certainly a factor. There are lies large and small that prop of the relationship between Abby and Zack. Lies that all involved choose to ignore. Even in the first few moments of the play we learn of tensions and half-truths around Zack’s work schedule, pornography, Abby’s family and the rent. At first, it seems that the combination of half-truth and denial is an act of love, a misguided attempt for Zack to shield Abby, and for Abby to help Zack. But as the events of the play unfold, I have to consider the possibility that those gestures of love are more accurately seen as acts of self-protection. We do strange things to help those we love. And even stranger things to save ourselves.